Livable lives, labor law and emergency
By Victor Hugo Criscuolo Boson
Everywhere in the globe, politicians express their calculated dialectics split between life and economy. From Donald Trump to Putin, from Giuseppe Conte to Jair Bolsonaro, an avalanche of criticism has been aimed at the “exaggerated press coverage” and the ideation that the remedy may be far more deadly than poison. Both discourses claim to criticize those who defend the life of few people (those who have been infected) as compared to the population as a whole (people who rely on their jobs and the economy). On the other hand, reaction accuses the so-called “negationists” who overvalue the economy to the detriment of human life, thus defending the establishment of more expressive social politics, such as the universal basic income. From right to left, the indispensability of a neo-Keynesian or an ultra-neoliberal era is feared in order to overcome the chaos of emergency. Both WHO and IMF state that there is a “false dilemma” between lives and jobs: battling against the pandemic would be compulsory towards getting the economy back on track — this is what Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Kristalina Georgieva attest.
For at least one-third of the world’s population, the distancing of death meant prior paralyzation of life. Amidst all that, improbable prognoses bet on the long-lasting duration of quarentines, on the effectiveness of flexibilization measures and the arithmetic of economic upturns. Day after day, the atmosphere of such emergency, that has not fully elapsed, one that lingers here and now, melts utopias and imaginaries away, but unveils a handful of other possibilities. This atmosphere allows for underpinning the structuration of other imaginary arrangements for a necessarily diverse future era.
Something similar happened in the year of 1918. A hundred years ago, the influenza virus, popularly known as Spanish flu, devastated the world. According to estimates, over 50 million people died. Affecting all parts of the planet, one of the places where the pandemic had particular effects was Östersund, the only city in the province of Jämtland, in the North of Sweden. It came to be known as “the Spanish flu capital” .
As it gathered junctions of rapid railroads, agglutination of military troops located in close by spots, and a population pyramid full of ill-feds living under shaky conditions, in scarcity of food and great agglomeration, the city was severely struck by the flu impacts. Misery and the increasing lack of food led to angry protesting of workmen as well as popular riots around military posts.
Pervaded by political insurgences, Östersund was an extremely fertile setting for protests and commotion. The social issue in a small town marked by the extreme inequality of industrial capitalism worsened the populace dissatisfaction. Insalubrity, famine, lack of hospitals and of decent housing contrasted with the arrival and visit of rich tourists, who searched for the fresh mountain air and waters good for fishing. In this unequal arena, the virus arrived and caused the death of masses concentrated in the poorer layers of society. This allowed strikes of revindication for better survival conditions to become more and more common. The virus had made starvation and decease wide open.
Themes such as public health and the social conditions of the labor force, as well as the State role in promoting them, were put in perspective within civil society. People of various ranks started acting so as to contribute with the city, which was torn apart by social class divisions. One of the most traditional newspapers, the Östersunds-Posten, coordinated social contribution initiatives, by publicizing financial aid requests, as well as groceries and garments solicitations. Criticism to State liberalism was articulate and dense. The omission of the State would not cope with facing the problems and rearranging the bases in order to sketch a possible future.
When the critical period of the pandemic was left behind, the Swedish State revised many of its practices and previous guidelines, starting to encompass the social reformism movement that had begun in Östersund. Health, education, housing and nourishment became then part of its political agenda.
Recently, many testimonies of Swedes from the South that migrated to Östersund, broadcast by The Guardian newspaper, attest the quality of life nowadays provided to the municipality inhabitants. A hundred years after the catastrophe, the city is considered one of the most prosperous and socially just places in the world. Any attempt to understand the Swedish social welfare State cannot be successful if, according to Jim Hedlund, you do not take into consideration the 1918 events, the Spanish flu virus and the social reactions to it.
I do not want to advocate, by mentioning the Östersund case, the perfection of Swedish experience, or to claim it is exempt of criticism, let alone to pass the false impression of naïvely wishing to transplant it to other contexts. But this historical fact is potent enough to demonstrate a possibility of world redimensioning that can be born from a crisis context, from a context in which a plague has spread out (be it biologically or politically).
I, therefore, reckon that the change in the future in relation to the current crisis could be even more radicalized and this moment could serve as food for thought towards building new social arrangements. As an agent of the legal sphere, I devote myself to reflecting upon the possibilities of a new transformation, truly critical, of theories such as the labor law. An alternate theorization that may be capable of putting both the estranged labor and the subordination of the workforce over capital at stake.Overcoming the traditional mechanisms that the Brazilian universe has imagined and consolidated along the 20th and the 21st centuries in order to handle its labor issues can be curbed from the plagued world we are now being presented: How much is the worker worth for the capitalist system? How to enable the masses a decent life, when they, deprived of the right to work, are neglected a possible concrete experience? What is the social and economic value of labor? How to characterize the enslaved ones of our time? What is the meaning of social identity and class solidarity among us? And last but not least: how much is life worth in the contemporary era? The answers to all these questions are complex and debatable. However none of them can refrain from considering an elementary piece of data, namely the stratified and diversified appraisal of human lives pierced by the drama and death in emergency today.
The emergency is not simply economical, but life-pertaining. At present, these spheres of emergency are intertwined. Death statistics, hospital beds graphs and contamination rates show in the media game followed by inflation prognoses and GDP downturn. Usually, we also come across dire unemployment data. In the month of April, the number of Brazilians who applied for national government emergency aid surpassed 45 million people. Requests for unemployment insurance benefits have escalated 22,1% within a single month. Indefinite vulnerable lives that are intimately related to the virus invasions and the crisis that points to the pernicious ratio today, between economy and life.
The legal mechanisms that have been available to us, over generations, are not only insufficient to render life more livable, but rather tolerant of death from misery and poverty. The reorienting that is demanded for a world transformation post pandemic does not mean our paying attention to how the legal instruments are being interpreted as provisional presidential decrees and laws, or the enforcement of the laws entailed by the legal order. Such mechanisms are the symptoms of an unsuccessful order that has codified the disaster of our times, thus decomposing life, man before his own counterparts (solidarity), man before the environment and man before himself.
I would go as far as to say that traditional law, or even the traditional theory of labor law do not count anymore as a way out that gives us a satisfactory answer to the complexity of a life that deserves to be lived. In them we find no solution to rethink the violent rationale of a world that contradicts itself. For, as it stops economically to save lives, it is not capable of safeguarding many other lives, due to the circumstances of overvaluation of what Marx defined as abstract labor (and labor depreciation with use-value), as a single instance attributed to the working class to assert its human condition.
The boundaries of reflection that could overcome the instantiation of a plundering capitalism and of a legal system convenient to it are not in the hands of traditional jurists. Nor is it on the pages of current legal codes, or in the records of judicial sentences or in the letter of textbooks that would echo canon and thus render sacred our modern society of labor which is at a time free and contradictorily subordinated.
I believe that the transformation of reality, as in Östersund, is more attainable through popular pressure and mobilizing forces of social movements rather than the agents of traditional institutions (whether political, legal or administrative), which have proven us the weight of failure.
Emergency highlights all of that. And it is able to put us in place in relation to the contradictory enclaves of truth and pragmatism, of life and economy. It also sheds light on the possibility of a brand new horizon. By this enclave also presents us the possibility of the new at the end of the tunnel, a possibility of hope. Epistemological questions challenge us in this way, but also ethical and political ones, that entail human beings as social agents of various provenances and fields of knowledge. I speak from the vantage point of a specific knowledge field, law. Although we are not, in isolation, or we could not be, for that matter, the protagonists of such change.
Crisis brings in its bowels the possibility in the horizon of a future that the darkness of today conceals. The possibility of betting and looking for new designs, objects and imaginations and roles rises from its paunch. New outlines that the past and the present have ignored, but that play in a gut-wrenching way before our eyes. As the dynamics of poverty, of inequality, of misery, and of vulnerability. And out of the absence of life, that is going to deserve to be lived.
About the author: Victor Hugo Criscuolo Boson is professor at the Formation Center for Humane and Social Sciences at Southern Bahia Federal University, Porto Seguro, Brazil.
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